In June 2016, the result of the U.K.’s referendum on membership of the European Union brings down the Prime Minister, cripples Parliament and divides a nation in acrimonious back-biting.
Why did the ‘Brexit’ vote cause such surprise and disruption, and can you be sure this turmoil won’t happen in the upcoming presidential election?
On the face of it, there was nothing particularly unusual about the Brexit campaigns. Political leaders battled on every point, attempting to build an enticing vision of the future for their respective Remain and Leave camps. Fact, fiction, spin and confusion reigned. So what? We’ve been living with spin – creative presentation of the facts – since the dawn of democracy. One of the pithiest observations on political ethics, made by Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes around 400 BCE, is that “under every stone lurks a politician.” Fast forward to modern times, when Paul Ryan was caught taking ’factual shortcuts’ in his speech at last year’s Republication National Convention, drawing attention to spin. Historically, we have been skeptical of politicians and their promises. Now, we face a paradigm shift with serious consequences.
Online sentiment contradicts traditional polling
Why has spin spun out of control in the last decade? The problem is rooted in our digital environment, and it’s here to stay. One of the key features of ‘Brexit’ was that traditional debates indicated the Remain campaign would win, if only narrowly. All the predictions and all the expectations were based on feedback from face-to-face human interaction. A leading Leave campaigner actually conceded defeat during the results, only to retract when the final tally turned out to be in his favor. Nobody took into account the strong Leave sentiment online, and winners and losers alike were caught by surprise. The classic ”Downfall” internet meme, a film clip that is regularly subtitled by YouTube users to reflect current events with comedic effect, was re-subtitled, purportedly showing the Leave leaders’ shock at actually winning (advisory: explicit content). It’s ironic that not only was the result of the referendum skewed by social media, but that one of the most comprehensive explanations of the facts post-vote was presented as a publicly generated YouTube classic. What are the new factors that have caused this shift away from easily measurable public opinion?
Consensus, shallow learning and mind change characterize society
First, we’ve gone beyond indulgently accepting the lies told by our favored candidate or trusted news outlet. Although plenty of evidence shows that we have always been too trusting of politicians (Riggio, 2011, and Ropiek, 2015), sweeping statements were previously tempered by arguments of equal prominence, enabling some semblance of sensible decision making. The rapid rise of social media as a key communication channel, and the human tendency to cluster and form consensus with like-minded people, has distorted the political message. Voters now find themselves enclosed within a digital boundary where the spin comes from friends, family and groups based upon shared interests, often in the form of catchy, uncorroborated memes and opinionated posts. Once, savvy voters treated political rhetoric with the skepticism it warrants and looked at both sides of the coin.
Now, campaign rhetoric is skewed by closed communities giving credence to statements that match their beliefs. When this effect is magnified and reinforced by sharing on social channels, the online consensus diverges rapidly from the consensus that exists in the real world. This is in line with the classic example where a closed group of non-mathematicians can come to the conclusion that 2+2=5, despite the fact it’s patently incorrect. It is a flawed consensus reality.
Second, people don’t listen to experts. We tend to engage in ‘shallow learning’ in our absorption of online knowledge. In his book, “The Dumbest Generation,” Mark Bauerlein points out that the message will always be affected by the medium and suggests that the internet has produced a generation of “well-informed and media-hyperactive ignoramuses.” We skim through the headlines, learning a little about a lot; we don’t check the detail. Fact takes a back seat, and rhetoric comes to the forefront in this environment. You only have to follow comments on a climate change discussion or a vaccine debate to see polarization and strong opinion with very little basis in fact. People don’t search for the truth: They take what is spoon-fed to them.
One of the classic promises of the Leave campaign was that 350 million pounds a week would be saved and spent instead on the provision of health care. As early as April, two months before the vote, Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority made it very clear this was not true. Despite widespread coverage of Sir Andrew’s statement, a leading politician and Leave campaigner dismissed the criticism, saying “Britain has had enough of experts.” The false claim was widely shared on traditional and social media until the day of the referendum – and even painted on the side of the campaign bus. However, within an hour of the result being announced, the Leave camp’s Nigel Farage told ITV news that this pledge was “a mistake.” The experts were right all along.
Finally, there is the very real possibility that our digital habits are actually changing the way our brains are wired. British neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield suggests that “Mind Change” could be an unprecedented development of the 21st Century. “Today’s screen technologies create environments that could alter how we process information, the degree to which we take risks, how we socialise and empathise with others and even, how we view our own identity,” Greenfield’s website says. The need for positive affirmation in social media interactions backfired on those in the Remain campaign, whose predominantly negative messages were mocked by the Leavers as “Project Fear.”
The vision painted by the Leaverstherefore, made more headway online. In a talk last year about the “Plastic Mind,” Baroness Greenfield warned that “it’s critical to challenge the mind to understand and query rather than to simply accept an internet’s worth of facts.” Social media interactions remove most of the cues we take for granted in face-to-face communication. Emoticons, images and live video posts attempt to remedy this; however, words alone account for just 10 percent of a message. If the other 90 percent – the subtle body language – isn’t getting through, how can any politician be sure that the feedback from a live audience is accurately reflected in an online group? How can politicians be comfortable with the thought that their wildest rhetoric is being taken as gospel truth?
We need a code of campaign ethics
Campaigning is a political fight outside the normal arena of government. As it is neither process nor policy, it is not subject to the principles or the enforcement of active political ethics. In the U.K., the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner enforces the Code of Conduct. (For example, “Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its members generally.”) In the United States, the House Ethics Committee holds sway. However, neither body addresses the ethics of campaigning.
Given the challenges of educating the electorate in the digital age, political campaigners should be subject to the same ethical constraints and sanctions as elected representatives. Bruce Weinstein, the Ethics Guy, proposed a 10-point Campaign Code of Ethics for candidates back in 2008. To me, the key elements of his proposal are these: Tell the truth, don’t make promises you can’t keep, and listen – to all the channels of communication. It’s time to adopt Weinstein’s Code of Ethics. In the eleventh hour of the presidential race, the United States has the chance to take an ethical stand.
Kate Baucherel is a published author, speaker, trainer and coach, and co-founded community software company Ambix. She has two young children, and lives in the north of England. Find out more at www.katebaucherel.com, or follow @katebaucherel on Twitter.
When you die, the executor of your estate begins the task of managing and distributing your assets. In the past, financial accounts, real estate and various chattels such as cars, furniture, personal property and other tangible items were affected. The advent of the information age, however, finds individuals storing heritable information online in the form of accounts and personal data.
Personal and sentimental items such as email accounts, photographs, videos and messages comprise much of this online data. However, some online records, including online banking and bill paying accounts, music and video subscription services and online trading or stock accounts with companies such as Optionshouse, may have financial value. To complicate matters, each category of online items has a set of rules and regulations governing inheritance, privacy and distribution issues. The lack of consistency across platforms’ policies has made life increasingly difficult for grieving family members attempting to delete, retrieve or redistribute online property.
Online items of a sentimental nature have gotten the lion’s share of press attention. In January 2016, for example, Technobuffalo reported that Apple refused to give a widow her dead husband’s passwords, even after she provided the serial numbers for the iPad in question. Apple maintained that she needed a court order for them to release the password, and the company stuck to its guns until the widow reached out to CBC’s “Go Public.” At that point, she got the passwords and an apology from Apple.
In some cases, access to accounts of deceased family members could prove essential to healing or understanding a decedent’s actions. In 2011, Ricky and Diane Rash, the parents of a boy who committed suicide, tried to access their son’s Facebook account to more clearly understand why he’d taken his life. Even after they obtained a court order, Facebook fought their attempts to recover materials from his account. Ultimately, it took the parents one year of legal conflict to win only limited access. This experience prompted them to push for legislation that would allow parents and legal guardians to access their children’s online accounts, a project which culminated in the Virginia General Assembly’s unanimous adoption of House Bill 1477, the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act.
It could be partially due to situations such as the Rash family’s that in February 2015, Facebook announced that users could designate legacy contacts. A legacy contact is an individual who would have access to your account after your death to pin a post, accept friend requests and update your profile. This person wouldn’t have access to your private posts, but he or she would be able to manage your profile after your death. It’s a step forward, but family members and heirs still can’t retrieve photos or videos stored in your account if they aren’t public content.
Twitter has a more lenient policy. Its support center clarifies that you may have a deceased user’s account removed by providing some basic information about the decedent, a copy of your identification and a copy of a death certificate. It will also consider removing images of deceased loved ones across the platform at the request of the immediate family. However, Twitter restricts access to the deceased’s account, and it may deny any application for media removal, although it claims to consider these requests.
Be warned if you store data in the cloud. iCloud’s Terms and Conditions state that you agree your account is “non-transferable.” Non-transferable, in this case, means that Apple terminates rights to your Apple ID and content in your account after your death. While heirs may not retrieve content, they can terminate the account and have the content deleted if they have a copy of the death certificate. However, personal photos or videos may be lost forever if they are stored in the cloud rather than on a computer or accessory drive.
So, Facebook, Twitter and iCloud may keep your sentimental items, but what about your music and movies? Apple says heirs have no right to your music or video collections after you die. According to the company, you haven’t bought a license to the tangible music or film; you’ve only bought a license to listen or watch, and that license dissolves upon your death. Apple states this philosophy in Section B of its service agreement: “iTunes is the provider of the Service, which permits you to purchase or rent a license for digital content (“iTunes Products”) for end user use only under the terms and conditions set forth in this Agreement.”
More easily navigated for heirs are online brokerage and securities accounts. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, does not specify its rules for online accounts because many banking and investment accounts have an online component in conjunction with traditional investment relationships. Wills, trusts and estate planning can help heirs retrieve funds kept in online accounts. Online accounts not revealed in estate planning documents are escheated, or placed in an unclaimed property fund. You must do your research to determine the location and amount of these funds and complete the forms and documentation necessary to retrieve them.
Consumers of online services, whether that be social media, cloud services, banking or online purchasing, need to direct the fate of personal accounts well before they die. Concerned individuals should leave passwords and other information with trusted family members or a family attorney and set up accounts to allow family access after death.
Obviously, there’s much regulation needed for online industries to resolve after-death issues in a fair, balanced and humane way. The responsibilities and rights of heirs cannot go ignored, even if there is a valid need to protect the privacy of the deceased.
With young adults most likely to have online accounts and die intestate, they are at the highest risk for privacy violations of their online assets. In this case, the contractual law outlined in the service provider’s terms and conditions will govern what is to be done with the account, even if the user has used online asset protection services such as Knotify Me and digi.me. Property laws would prevail if the information is treated as property, resulting in heirs getting access to what could be sensitive or damaging information.
The Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit, bi-partisan commission with the intent of providing states with legislation to clarify critical areas of state statutory law, created the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act that would allow fiduciaries to manage a decedent’s digital assets, including online accounts. Currently, it has been enacted in 18 states and introduced in 11 more. However, this act does not govern accounts created or held outside of the United States.
The online community needs a global definition of digital assets so these assets may be properly categorized as governed by contractual or property laws. Only then can treatment of digital property be addressed in cases of death both with and without a will. For circumstances involving music and video downloads, further action is needed to protect consumers’ rights to gift or bestow digital collections to legally appointed heirs, as would be done with similar tangible items.
Online service providers should distribute accounts and digital materials of deceased owners according to their wishes. A standard, enforceable method of designating heirs, fiduciaries or account managers must be developed. Digital legacy clearinghouse The Digital Beyond and similar services offer a valuable shift toward adopting this process. Online organizations must embrace a standard practice that honors privacy for decedents while providing appropriate asset distribution to furnish both protection and fair asset handling to consumers. A universal set of definitions and formulae is the only answer to this predicament, short of the onerous task of waiting for case law to accumulate to force the issue with online giants. Until we have such a set of definitions, individuals should consider how to distribute their digital legacies and know the steps they must take to see their wishes carried out.
Nikki B. Williams is a bestselling author based in Houston, TX. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at www.gottabeewriting.com.
In 2015, Clouds Over Sidra, the first virtual reality (VR) video created for the United Nations, drew the public’s attention for both for its technological novelty and its adeptness at engaging users. With the help of a headset, viewers followed along as a young Syrian girl named Sidra took them on a tour of her Zaatari refugee camp, walking them through her daily life. According to UN project manager Kristin Gutekuns, the visual account helped individuals identify with refugees, a change from the prior disconnect she believes contributed to poor fundraising outcomes. Tearing down the the barrier between viewers and refugees, Sidra brought us into her home, her school and her play lot, making us feel as if we – not the producers – could gauge her circumstances. “Instead of just feeling bad for someone, you actually feel like you might be in the same situation with them,” said Gutekuns. To the public, the short film was an indication that journalism had reached a new frontier in which it could provide high-tech experiences that merged two environments.
While the fascination with VR has not worn off, it is now time for us to move beyond marveling at its potential. Journalists and editors must work together to create guidelines for virtual reality, establishing ethical boundaries that VR should not cross. One of the most important questions we must ask ourselves is whether VR should be off-limits if it infringes upon the privacy of taped subjects.
Sidra allowed us into her home on her own accord, but virtual reality journalism is quickly progressing, and we may soon find ourselves intruding upon experiences we were not invited to share. When times of crises give producers the opportunity to enter the worlds of wounded victims and families, journalists should make the ethical decision to set their VR equipment aside.
Before you accuse me of underhandedly promoting censorship, let me explain. As of now, VR journalism is merely an addendum to articles, photographs and limited-scope video coverage. We can refuse to trespass on people’s grief while continuing to write about tragic events and publish (sensitively-selected) footage. However, optimizing the VR experience by offering users enhanced images of injured individuals or grieving families during natural disasters, shootings or other devastating events would not be a point of pride for journalists.
Creating regulations that preserve privacy is a particularly urgent matter because recent improvements in VR access have pushed news sites to quickly expand their video repertoire. Legal and ethical regulations have not kept up with video production advancements spurred on by a selection of new, affordable VR headsets. With free smartphone apps and a cardboard viewer that costs $5, you can access VR stories published by a variety of news sources. To dissuade competing journalists from invading personal spaces in an attempt to obtain the most appealing footage, ethical boundaries must be standardized as quickly as possible.
Debates over privacy infringement are not new to 360-degree footage. Google 360 was met with an outpour of criticism for violating personal space and endangering minors by publishing the public’s whereabouts. In response, Google changed the angles at which people were photographed to minimize facial recognition and obliged requests to blur out faces and license plates. Now, Google’s initial infringements seem slight compared to intrusions associated with VR journalism. A major draw of VR is its ability to grant us entry into someone’s environment and induce a rush of emotion as we gaze straight into strangers’ eyes. If a child appears in the scene, an additional boost of empathy further enriches the experience. Offering this intimate experience is not inherently unethical, so long as journalists draw an appropriate line between approved documentation and invasion of space at graphic sites.
It may be tempting to cross the fine line between entertainment and documentation when news outlets seek captivating footage to win over viewers. Fortunately, most news sources have made ethically sound judgments about limiting VR productions of breaking news tragedies. (Admittedly, equipment setup and editing limitations play a role in these decisions.)
When disaster sites are filmed, the footage is typically captured in the aftermath of tragedy. Numerous short videos of war sites are available online, but injuries and subsequent despair are not a theme in taping and distribution. Virtual reality exploration of destroyed cities and images of struggling families cognizant of taping can illustrate distress without compromising the privacy of the deceased and their loved ones. When striving to obtain footage that enables viewers to witness scenes of devastation up-close, journalists must select platforms with sensitivity. Perhaps VR offers the best opportunity for immersion, but it is often the least ethical of options.
As numerous videos have shown, VR is at its best when it takes us into foreign territory, but its potential extends far beyond the portrayal of disaster. Some journalists who have utilized VR impressed audiences with short documentaries reminiscent of Discovery Channel productions. In the past year, the New York Times published fascinating VR films that included tours of national parks and a trip to the surface of Pluto. In fact, according to a list of VR do’s and don’ts published by Stanford University’s journalism program, “The vast majority of news stories are not suited for VR. … VR pieces will complement other forms of reporting rather than replace them.” Journalists should therefore resist the urge to capture and release footage of sensitive material under the impression that it is the only way to offer prime VR experiences.
We do not have to leave the public in the dark about events involving tragedy and grief, but it is important to be selective about the means by which stories are told. Ideally, scenes of violence would not be shot without a subject’s permission, but that is not always a viable option. At the very least, journalists should abide by ethical privacy guides the law has yet to establish. In some cases, that means putting down the VR equipment.
Paulina Haselhorst was a writer and editor for AnswersMedia and the director of content for Scholarships.com. She received her MA in history from Loyola University Chicago and a BA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You can contact Paulina at PaulinaHaselhorst@gmail.com.
Online companies such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, UpWork (previously oDesk/Elance), TaskRabbit, Fiverr and other companies that match digital workers with online or real-world jobs offer individuals easy entry into the burgeoning workforce of freelancers. With active users around the world and more than 53 million Americans participating, these platforms are attracting a lot of attention among businesses and individuals. It seems like a win-win situation for everyone, yet the ethics of this unregulated workforce are often questionable.
These platforms give workers the ability to get paid for simple tasks or tasks that require skill but can be done at home. Some people even use these services to acquire additional skills that can help them transition to new careers. Best of all, this free market work-for-hire system is offered in an informal online platform that is easy to learn and navigate.
At the lower-paying end of these organizations are businesses such as Mechanical Turk. This company employs more than 500,000 people, with more than190 countries represented. Although some of these workers live in developing countries, at least half are from the United States. Even here, many people benefit from working at MTurk. Orlando, a 26-year-old from California, wrote, “Since beginning to work on Mechanical Turk, I’ve only made $500, but to me sir, that means a lot. It means paying for three weeks of daycare; it means groceries for the month; it means car and health insurance premiums.”
At first blush, this sounds great. But some feel these services may be preying on the desperation of workers needing employment, encouraging them to join a workforce without proper representation. Trebor Scholz, author, educator and Associate Professor of Culture and Media at The New School where he is chairing The Politics of Digital Culture conference series has that concern. He worries that “The shift away from employment to freelancing, independent contract work and other emerging forms of labor is an affront to one hundred years of labor struggles for the 8-hour workday, employer-covered health insurance, minimum wage, workplace harassment and many other protections that were established under the New Deal to foster social harmony and keep class warfare at bay.”
The average pay for digital labor underscores these worries. In 2009, the estimated hourly wage for Turkers was $2.30 per hour, far below the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. One Turker, Rachel Jones from Minnesota, was able to reach just beyond minimum wage only after several years and completing 110,000 jobs. When asked about her experience, she admitted that she’d like higher wages, but fears a significant increase could destroy the world of crowdworking, which is what allows her to stay home with her children. That’s a chance she said she doesn’t want to take.
However, while Mr. Scholz rightly points out the relative lack of regulation and legislation in place to protect employees in the digital workplace from exploitative issues such as depressed wages, he leaves out the fact that 30 to 45 percent of working-age individuals around the world are unemployed or employed part-time. At the same time, many business sectors, notably skilled trades and technology, struggle to fill positions. Online talent platforms such as UpWork or Task Rabbit have provided one way to connect qualified, job-seeking employees with companies or individuals that need help. James Manyika, the Director of McKinsey Global Institute, said the free-market aspect of the system should eventually take care of the wage problem: “There is a strong correlation between labor market fluidity and an increase in wages.”
Despite fears of low wages, evidence shows that people can and do make decent money through these sites. While some use it to supplement other income, others make a living from online tasks alone. Leah Busque, the former IBM software engineer who created theTaskRabbit platform, confirmed that many people make up to $60,000 a year on the site. She wrote, “We are enabling micro-entrepreneurs to build their own business on top of TaskRabbit, to set their own schedules, specify how much they want to get paid, say what they are good at, and then incorporate the work into their lifestyle.” Megan Williams, a content strategist and the owner of Locutus Health Communications, claimed she earns $100 per hour on UpWork. She even details her experience with the platform on a blog for writers, with the intention of helping others achieve similar results. One man on TaskRabbit said he earns $2,000 per week on the site and boasted that he gets to spend half his time enjoying life on his boat in Napa, California. And one clever mom, Regina Aguilar, said she earns $400 per month on TaskRabbit to supplement her income so that she can stay home with her children.
A few years ago, I signed up with oDesk (now UpWork) so I could take a few gigs when times were slow. At times, I worked for less than I would have made otherwise, but I didn’t take any extremely low-paying jobs. However, one job ended up landing me an article assignment for the Huffington Post. That’s a fantastic item for my resume, and it was instrumental in bringing me writing work the more traditional way. Since clients tend to share experiences with one another, I found myself getting consistently higher paying jobs as client connections joined the oDesk work platform.
Still, it’s clear these platforms have inherent weaknesses. According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, they can restrict women’s social and economic empowerment due to gaps in gender access to digital technology in developing countries. And Mark Graham, a fellow at Oxford University’s Internet Institute pointed out that while some online workers do make more than their office-going brethren, there is a higher risk associated with working online. “Almost all of this work is precarious in some way as there isn’t much stability or security for these workers as it’s just as easy to fire them as it is to hire them,” said Graham. “It allows the clients of businesses hiring these workers a risk-free strategy—instead of taking the risk of taking these workers on more secure stable contracts, they are putting this risk onto workers themselves.”
Workers’ risks increase when platforms change operating systems and algorithms or merge with one another. The TaskRabbit community, a group of individuals offering to do small jobs such as shopping and small home repairs, recently went through an upheaval that left many employees angry. The company moved from a bidding system, which allowed Taskers to bid on jobs they liked and would fit into their daily schedules, to a system that assigns tasks via computer. Now, if a Tasker can’t commit within 30 minutes, the task is moved to someone else. This change was met with candid dismay as shown in comments on Reddit and Facebook, including this one: “I used to work every day, several tasks. I haven’t received any tasks since the change. My availability is completely open, I am highly rated and have been a Taskrabbit for a year (level 16). My rates are as low as possible, setting a task to $18/hour to be competitive means a take home pay of only $14.40. I wasn’t huge on bidding but I did do quick assign tasks all day long. Now there are no tasks to do :(.”
The organizational makeup of the platform carries even more risks because it protects the anonymity of employers through the platform’s auspices. When workers have little or no information about who’s offering the job, it makes it difficult for them to react to exploitation and band together to fight inequalities. As Trebor Scholz .” If you now take into consideration that this milieu that is marked by anonymity is also transnational, then the challenges to traditional unions become clear.” Also of concern is that employers can impact a freelancer’s rating and potential income with unwarranted bad reviews and by “reporting” the freelancer to the platform’s management. This risk of bad reviews causes some freelancers to refund dissatisfied clients rather than risk a hit to their ratings.
Digital talent platforms clearly offer benefits across the board to individuals in both developed and developing nations. These platforms give inexperienced and entry-level workers ways to work or gain experience while pursuing an education, with jobs that can grow into thriving businesses through persistence. They offer skilled workers casual work opportunities that fit their lifestyles. They provide a way to switch careers by gaining experience through part-time work and give stay-at-home parents a way to earn supplemental income without sacrificing their children’s care. But these benefits often times come at the expense of employees’ rights.
Legislation, regulation and, importantly, oversight is necessary to protect digital workers from exploitation by both potential employers and the platforms themselves. At the very least, there should be requirements for standard minimum wages, even if these vary from our current definitions. Regulation must be sought at a global level to grant protection across the world, and should direct particular attention to refusing to shield participating employers with the veil of anonymity.
Digital labor is here to stay. Each year, more talent platforms are added as the business community sees the advantage of this eager, inexpensive new workforce. Like some predicted during the Industrial Revolution when new forms of production caused an upsurge in cheap labor, workers will have to rebel against poor working conditions and exploitation to effect a change in the largely unregulated policies currently governing the online workforce.
Nikki B. Williams is a bestselling author based in Houston, TX. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at www.gottabeewriting.com.
The New York Times calls its custom-crafted dashboard “Stela” — which stands for “story and event analytics.” According to Shan Wang’s report for Niemanlab.org, the Times makes this user-friendly system available to staff so they can see an array of data about their articles:
“We were looking for ways to help reporters and editors get feedback on the things they were being asked to do online, such as tweaking headlines, promoting to social,” Steve Mayne, lead growth editor at the Times, said. “And we believed it would be much more effective for us to actually have a tool to show reporters how, for instance, certain actions directly resulted in more people reading their stories.”
The system as described by Wang is impressive and effective, and has become fairly well adopted inside the Times. As media organizations gain greater access to these instant report cards, several questions arise:
Loyola’s Don Heider (SoC Dean) and Jill Geisler (Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity) sort it out.
Don Heider: I think in this case, like so many, context is key. I can see using analytics as is described in the NY Times piece to really help reporters and editors be more responsive to the audience. I think most of us at this point realize that journalism today and in the future must be more interactive, and this gives journalists a tool set to pay attention to how readers are responding to their stories, headlines, and even photos and videos.
The worry is of course is about the “P” word. Will journalists begin pandering to readers to try to build views and clicks? When I said context above, I meant context as is in; who is in the newsroom? If you have a veteran crew of writers, reporters and editors, I think there is little risk. Managers can help by making sure the mission of organization is clear, and even what goals are when using analytic information. What are you seeing among the managers you teach and coach in news organizations?
Jill Geisler: Managers vary greatly when it comes to analytics. Some are protective of performance data – just because they like to control the flow of information in general. Some are conservative about sharing, fearing it will be misinterpreted and cause other “P” words like “panic” or “paranoia.” Some are still learning analytics themselves.
And then there are folks like my friend Marty Kady, editor of POLITICO Pro. Here’s what he told me:
“On my team, I’ve gone fully in favor of providing metrics (though we don’t judge our paywall products by total clicks). We have provided open rates for email newsletters and alerts, subscription renewal rates and a full list of subscribers to all the section editors. If you want people to feel fully bought in to the news and product mission, I think transparency in how we’re doing is essential.”
I like Marty’s transparent approach. With transparency comes additional responsibility for leaders. To share analytics effectively, think: Strategy, Success and Soul. Explain your organization’s strategy and how the metrics support it. Define clearly how the metrics do or don’t measure the success of the whole team and each individual member. Never forget that data-driven organizations can easily lose sight of values, their soul – without strong leadership.
Here’s my at-a-glance guide for sharing analytics:
|Strategy||Success /Team||Success/ Individual||Soul|
|How do the metrics we’re sharing fit with our overall strategy?What are our priorities?Knowing that digital strategy must be nimble, how do we explain a quick change in focus?||How do we know we’re moving in the right direction?Who or what should we be judging ourselves against?How can we use data to work better as a team, rather than silos?||How does data factor into the evaluation of an employee? How can we help employees learn to interpret data in context?Do we make certain that analytics aren’t the sole measure of a person’s contributions?||How clear are we about what we stand for as an organization?Do we make it clear that metrics won’t hijack news judgment and values?Do we talk about values in the same conversations as analytics?|
That said, let me ask you, Don, for your take the biggest ethical land mines you’d encourage media organizations to guard against when it comes to analytics? What’s your top five list?
I don’t know about a top five, but here are things I think about:
It sounds like Politico has an excellent approach. But do most newsrooms have the resources they to help put metrics into context?
As I was saying above, I worry that analytics without context can lead journalists to conflate popularity (impressions, page views, etc.) with journalistic importance. We always have to come back to that question; what’s our journalistic purpose? Why we journalists and what are is our duty? I would argue, even in a digital click-through age, our duty is to inform people, serve as watchdogs, and to tell important stories well. There are times when the most important stories do not perform as well as the less important stories (such as the latest Kardashian saga). That never releases us from our obligation to try to do our best to inform.
We can use analytics to helps us gain a broader understanding of what the public wants and needs to know, but we have to dig a little, examine trends and even ask the public from time-to-time; page impressions does not do that effectively. The bottom line; analytics have to be aligned with journalistic purpose. Conversely, following the wrong metrics can lead journalists in the wrong direction (Buzzfeed’s clickbait comes to mind).
As a researcher I can also tell you that one set of data never tell you the whole story. There are always hundreds of variables that can influence an outcome and this definitely holds true with web analytics. Most often a data set tells you what, it almost never tells you why.
Web analytics will never replace a human being’s ability to develop sources, ferret out a story or witness an event. Computers, algorithms, data analysis all become really helpful and powerful tools when paired with human intelligence.
I also think the more we look at analytics the more we realize that the future of journalism will be based upon building relationships with our audience. Engaging people in what we do, including listening to their ideas and feedback, even meeting them face-to-face. I think if we can really engage people in what we do and how we do it, there’s more chance they will financially support our endeavors.
Finally, I worry that if newsrooms become overly dependent on metrics, it may discourage risk-taking. We don’t want to get into the well-worn grooves of doing what works over and over. I have often see a crazy idea do more to break new ground and engage people than just repeating the same kind of news over and over again.